Bathroom Panic Syndrome

When I was a kid, Phyllis Schlafly used bathroom panic to help defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have made sexual equality a constitutionally protected value. The claim was that the ERA would strip women of the “right to privacy based on sex” in “public restrooms and other public facilities.” Basically, unisex, gender-neutral bathrooms.

Pro-ERA supporters at the time pointed out this was a completely ridiculous interpretation of the law, that it was totally not going to happen. I believed them. But more importantly, even if the law did lead to unisex bathrooms, I didn’t know why I was supposed to be afraid of that.

Literally every private bathroom I had ever used was unisex, for one thing. (Men leaving the seat up was about the worst side effect of that.) Public bathrooms were either solo, or had stalls for privacy. What was supposed to be inherently frightening about men using the same public bathrooms as women? Cooties?

But now that same inexplicable phobia of not-entirely-100-percent-guaranteed-binary-gender-segregated public bathrooms has reared its ugly head again, as a tool for discriminating against transgendered people.

Bathroom panic won the day in Houston, a pervert in Virginia wants to spec out kid’s genitals before they can use the restroom, and right here in Washington state, some dipwad has proposed HB 2589 specifically to allow:

limiting access to a private facility segregated by gender, such
8 as a bathroom, restroom, toilet, shower, locker room, or sauna, to a
9 person if the person is preoperative, nonoperative, or otherwise has
10 genitalia of a different gender from that for which the facility is
11 segregated.

(Although, if you read the complete PDF, the whole thing is worded in funky-pants legalese where it allows it by not prohibiting it? Sometimes I do not understand how the sausage of our laws is made. )

I didn’t get the Terror of the Unisex Bathroom then, and I get it even less now. What problem are you trying to solve, exactly? Have you thought maybe anti-anxiety meds for your irrational phobia would be a better choice than passing legislation that literally does nothing other than humiliate and endanger trans people?

What do you think happens in public restrooms anyway? Orgies? Witchcraft? Closeted homosexual pickups? If the last one (which has a history among Republican legislators) it would at least explain why you think it’s so vitally important that the other people using the restroom have the genitalia you expect.

Myself, I have never seen anybody else’s genitalia while in a public restroom. So I have no idea what kind of sexual equipment was possessed by all the many strangers who have ever shared a bathroom with me. Could have been vaginas, could have been penises, could have been some kind of alien robot thing, could have been nothing at all — I have no clue, and I’d like to keep it that way.

Unless somebody is in a very intimate relationship with me, or possibly a performance artist, my need to know what their genitals are like is nil. Less than nil, actually. BECAUSE I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW.

It’s none of my business. It’s none of YOUR business. Have you considered that maybe this pressing need to make it your business is actually a weird sexual fetish? Best served — perhaps — by joining an adults-only club where people show other people their genitals for no particular reason while they happen to be using the bathroom at the same time?

Here’s what I expect to happen when a cis woman goes into a woman’s bathroom: she uses the toilet and washes her hands.

Here’s what I expect to happen when a trans woman goes into a woman’s bathroom: she uses the toilet and washes her hands.

I expect a trans man, should he be forced to use a women’s bathroom on account of genitalia technicalities and BS legislation like this, will use the toilet and wash his hands.

I expect a cis man, should he be in the women’s bathroom because he’s confused or drunk or desperate while the men’s bathroom is being cleaned, will use the toilet and wash his hands.

Basically, I expect everyone to wash their hands. I’m really serious about this. Wash your hands, people! It’s gross when you don’t.

The people suffering from Bathroom Panic Syndrome, however, seem to think it’s inherently dangerous for a man to be in the women’s bathroom. They often characterize it as a matter of “safety.” And we know what that means, right? We know that men are dangerous because men rape. And we women, we cis women, are supposed to be terrified of this.

But this terror is supposed to be managed only in very specific ways. I’m supposed to be afraid of men — but not so afraid that I refuse to associate with them and run off to a radical lesbian compound in the mountains somewhere. My fear is supposed to keep me circumspect and conventional, not make me angry or defiant or bitchy or feminist. I’m supposed to be afraid of freedom and strangers, but trustful and obedient toward home and patriarchal authority figures. I’m supposed to accept this vague rape danger as an inevitable fact of nature that must be accommodated only through changes to my own behavior as an individual, and not see it as a social construct that can be changed through activism.

Back in the 70s, Bathroom Panic was supposed to make me fear equality. Now it’s supposed to make me fear trans women, on the grounds that they are “men,” who are therefore inherently dangerous to have in a women’s bathroom.

But the fact is, actual male sexual predators do not pretend to be trans women and hang out in women’s restrooms.

Why would they need to? They can just hang around outside, counting who goes in and who goes out (humans are almost as good at this as crows), and go in when only one woman is in there. Or they can just barge right in, and, if the woman isn’t alone, pretend they walked in by mistake and walk right out again. Or they can use violence or weapons to intimidate bystanders into not interfering. Or they can hang out somewhere less well-trafficked than the bathroom, like the parking garage, and wait for an abuse opportunity. Or they can act like nice guys, get women to date them, and abuse the women in the privacy of their own homes. Etc. You know the drill. it’s not like the world is lacking in opportunities for men to attack women.

Why would any guy feel the need to pretend to be a woman first? Dressing up like a woman is a lot of work.

Further, it’s impossible to imagine at what point in the being-attacked-in-a-restroom process genital-related legislation like this is supposed to kick in and save us. Who is going to be inspecting bathroom-users to verify their genitalia, anyway? I don’t know about you, but I would consider some stranger waiting at the entrance of a bathroom in order to verify my genitalia exactly the kind of creepy, predatory behavior that such legislation is supposedly designed to protect us from.

And who would be paying for this? Where would we get the money to staff bathroom genital police everywhere? It’s absurd.

Practically speaking, the only way I can see such legislation being used is to harrass trans people — to make them feel unsafe and unwelcome and marginalized, and not able to be comfortable using any public restroom space. It provides legal cover for those who want to say, “you don’t belong here.”

It’s bad legislation intended to protect us from an imaginary threat. But the bigotry that inspired it is very real.

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  1. “But the fact is, actual male sexual predators do not pretend to be trans women and hang out in women’s restrooms.”

    Exactly. Do legislators think we’re lacking in ways men can and do attack women, that we have to head off this most peculiarly urgent possibility? Are we so blind as to believe that all the men who have and will attack women have ever needed to resort to dressing like a woman to make it happen? Because of the dozens of attacks that have happened to friends and family, that have been confided in me, exactly none of them involved the man engaging in any kind of cross-gender subterfuge. They were all quite proud of being and looking obviously like men.

    So the ONE thing this legislation claims to protect against fails and fails again and again on several other levels.

    For one thing, I absolutely decline to abrogate my right to privacy because that’s what is proposed if this is actually enforced, isn’t it? I don’t get automatically get issued a pass that proves I’m a woman, so if you want to check some women to ensure we don’t have a man among us, or someone with different genitalia, then it sounds to me like all women have to be checked or you don’t have the security sense given to a gnome. In that case, now we’ve got some random stranger with the right to check our pants for any reason under the pretense that they’re confirming we’re women? Absolutely NOT.

    And seriously, if we are going to be issued identity cards for our gender? No. That’s just absurd. This whole thing is absurd, except for the intent behind the legislation, which, as you say, is bigotry. That’s scary.

  2. Dear Julie. Should someone suggest they have the legal right to inspect you genetilia, please let me know. I haven’t had a good fight in years and years.

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